Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro is temporarily banning social media companies from removing certain content, including his claim that he will only lose next year’s election if the vote is rigged — one of the most important steps a democratically elected leader has taken to gain control of what can be said on the internet.
The new social media rules, issued this week and effective immediately, appear to be the first time a national government has stopped internet companies from removing content that violates their rules, according to internet law experts and tech company officials. . And they come at a precarious time for Brazil.
Bolsonaro has used social media as a megaphone to build his political movement and reach the president’s office. With polls showing he would lose the presidential election if they were held today, he is using sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to undermine the legitimacy of the vote, according to the playbook of his close ally, former President Donald J. Trump. On Tuesday, Bolsonaro reiterated his claims about the election to thousands of supporters in two cities as part of nationwide demonstrations on Brazil’s Independence Day.
Under the new policy, technology companies may only remove posts if they relate to certain topics covered in the measure, such as nudity, drugs and violence, or if they encourage crime or violate copyrights; to take others down, they must get a court order. That suggests tech companies in Brazil could easily remove a nude photo, but no lies about the coronavirus. The pandemic has been a major topic of disinformation under Mr Bolsonaro, with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all removing videos of him pushing unproven drugs as the coronavirus heals.
“You can only imagine how hard it would be for a major platform to get a court order for every bit of misinformation they find,” said Carlos Affonso Souza, a law professor at Rio de Janeiro State University. .
Brazil’s new internet rules are the latest attempt in a larger battle conservatives are waging against Silicon Valley. Politicians and pundits on the right have argued that tech companies are censoring conservative voices, and increasingly have pushed laws that make it harder for social networks to remove posts or accounts from their sites.
Florida passed a law in May that fines internet companies that bar political candidates from their sites, although a federal judge blocked it a month later. The Texas governor is expected to sign a similar bill soon. Other countries have proposed similar legislation, but Brazil’s new policy proved to be the most important measure at the national level.
In a Twitter messageBolsonaro’s government said the policy “prohibits the removal of content that could lead to any form of ‘censorship of a political, ideological, scientific, artistic or religious order’.”
In addition to limiting the types of posts that companies can delete, the rules may also require tech companies to justify deleting a post or account, even those with the protected exceptions. The government can then force the companies to reinstate the mail or account if it decides the removal was unjustified.
Tech companies were quick to criticize the new policy. Facebook said the “measure significantly hinders our ability to curb abuse on our platforms” and agrees “with legal experts and specialists who view the measure as a violation of constitutional rights.”
Twitter said the policy is transforming existing internet law in Brazil, “undermining the values and consensus on which it is built.”
YouTube said it was still analyzing the law before making any changes. “We will continue to communicate the importance of our policies, and the risks to our users and creators if we cannot enforce them,” the company said.
Facebook said it hadn’t changed the way it controlled content in Brazil yet. Twitter declined to say. It was unclear how the measure would affect content outside of Brazil.
As far-reaching as they are, the new rules are unlikely to last, according to political and legal analysts following Brazil. Mr. Bolsonaro issued them as a so-called interim measure, a kind of emergency order intended to deal with urgent situations. Such measures expire in 120 days if the Brazilian Congress does not make them permanent. Some members of Congress have already publicly opposed the measure, and five political parties and a Brazilian senator have filed lawsuits with the country’s Supreme Court to block the measure.
But Bolsonaro said at a rally against supporters on Tuesday that he would ignore statements by a Supreme Court judge who helped lead investigations into Bolsonaro’s government, raising alarms around the world that the president is threatening Brazil’s democracy.
Bolsonaro has taken other steps to make it harder to fight online disinformation. For example, this month he vetoed part of a national security law that would have imposed criminal penalties on people found guilty of orchestrating massive disinformation campaigns.
Matthew Taylor, director of the Brazil Research Initiative at American University, said Bolsonaro used internet policies to rally and distract his supporters from scandals surrounding his handling of the pandemic and his clashes with the courts. Bolsonaro has portrayed this moment as crucial to the fate of his political movement.
“The timing was not a mistake,” Mr Taylor said of the policy, which was introduced on the eve of protests Mr Bolsonaro had hoped would spark support for his embattled presidency. “This is playing for Bolsonaro’s domestic audience.”
The Brazilian government said in his message on Twitter that it “took the lead worldwide in defending freedom of expression on social networks and protecting citizens’ right to freedom of thought and expression.” The government did not respond to requests for further comment.
While interim measures such as these will take effect immediately, companies have 30 days to update their policies before being fined, said Mr Affonso Souza, the law professor. He said the country’s Supreme Court could abolish the measure before internet companies had to comply, but argued it had set a dangerous precedent.
The president, he said, had devised a way to ensure that disinformation “stays on the internet and makes it easier to spread”.
Bolsonaro has alarmed many sectors of Brazil in recent months with his increasingly authoritarian responses to a range of political crises, including a burgeoning pandemic, economic trials, judicial investigations into him and his family and falling polls. He has attacked Brazil’s electronic voting system as a reason to disregard the upcoming election, and he recently told his supporters that his presidency has only three outcomes: be re-elected, jailed or killed.
In July, YouTube removed 15 of Bolsonaro’s videos for spreading misinformation about the coronavirus. And late last month, YouTube said that, by order of a Brazilian court, it had halted payments to 14 pro-Bolsonaro channels that had spread false information about next year’s presidential election.
Brazil’s Supreme Court has also investigated disinformation operations in the country. Bolsonaro became a target of those investigations last month and several of his allies have been questioned or detained.
This week, Jason Miller, a former Trump adviser, was detained for three hours at an airport in Brasília, the country’s capital, where he had traveled for a conservative political conference. In an interview, Mr Miller said authorities told him they were questioning him as part of a Supreme Court investigation. “It was ridiculous,” he said. “It really shows how much freedom of expression is under attack in the country of Brazil.”
Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist who won the 2018 presidential election, has long been compared to Trump. His recent actions — including claims of rigged elections, skepticism about the coronavirus and complaints of Big Tech censorship — have magnified the similarities.
Mr. Trump lost his speaker this year when tech companies kicked him off their sites for comments he made regarding the storming of the US Capitol in January.
Lately, Bolsonaro has been trying to reduce his reliance on the big tech companies. On Monday, he urged people on Twitter and Facebook to follow him on Telegram, a messaging service with a more hands-off approach to content.
Daphne Keller, who teaches internet law at Stanford University, said conservative politicians have proposed laws like the Brazilian measure in the United States, Poland and Mexico, but none have been passed.
“If platforms have to carry anything that is legal, they will turn into horrible cesspools that no one wants to use,” said Ms. Keller. “It’s a mechanism for the government to put their thumbs on the scales to say what’s seen on the internet.”
Lis Moriconi contributed reporting.